the Lesser

Things have changed. A lot has happened in the 7 years since last I was in the Philippines (recorded on this blog, too, see Feb-March 2005).

I think I'm both greater and lesser than I was.

In the Iliad and in the Gospels, there's this funny thing that happens with ancient, semi-mythical personages with the same name. There's Telamonian Ajax and Ajax the Lesser, both fighting at Troy. And there's James son of Zebedee and James the Lesser, both Apostles. In both traditions, it even splits into thirds.

Ajax has a brother/conscience figure, named Teucer, who is always fighting by his side. The English translation of "Ajax" is, strictly speaking, incorrect: the singular Greek is Aias, multiple Ajax. But whenever he was fighting, it was written Ajax, and closer scholarship assumed that meant both Telamonian and Ajax the Lesser always fought side by side, but now we think it means that Telamonian Ajax and Teucer were always side by side (Teucer was his shieldbearer, perhaps).

James son of Zebedee is the Santiago of Spain, to whom the Virgin appeared on a pillar (hence, Nuestra Senora de Pilar). His temper, and that of his brother John, earned them the nickname "Sons of Thunder." Tradition has it that he was the first of the Apostles to be martyred. James the Lesser, by contrast, is also identified with James the Just, the first Christian bishop of Jerusalem and one of the major authority figures of the early church, after Peter and Paul. James the Just is responsible for conceding to Paul's mission to the Gentiles, allowing them to become Christians without having to observe all the traditional strictures of Jewish law (i.e., circumcision). (Catholics equate James the Lesser with James the Just, because James the Lesser doesn't do anything in the New Testament, whereas James the Just figures in the letters a lot, and St. Jerome said they were the same guy, and Catholics do practically everything St. Jerome tells them to. Also, I think they felt bad for the guy stuck with the sobriquet "the Lesser." Orthodox and Protestants differentiate the Just and the Lesser, I think just for the sake of differentiating themselves from the Catholics.)

Myself, I was a greater man when last I was here in 2005, more hopeful, more stricken, feeling things with more impact. The sensory details, the overwhelm of people and heat. I had huge ambitions to write and create and perform on a brash scale.

Now, I plod. I sweat and watch. Maybe more shy. I'm Paul the lesser, or perhaps the Just.

Ajax the Lesser (also referred to as Locrian Ajax) was the calculating, wiry, wily counterpart to Telamonian Ajax's brute strength and massiveness. Where Telamonian Ajax had a shield as big as a tower and would heft massive boulders to crush Trojans, Locrian Ajax preferred to range against enemies with his bow and arrows, and was the fastest of the Greeks after Achilles. Tellingly, it was Locrian Ajax who raped Cassandra, stirring Athena's wrath, as the Greek fleet left the ruins of Troy, such that Athena scattered the fleet utterly. Locrian Ajax, as he clung to a rock after the wreck of his ship, boasted that he could survive whatever the immortals threw at him, and for this Poseidon split the rock with his trident, drowning him.

I still plot and scheme. I still have deep ambitions. I think I've learned deeper philosophy in these seven years. I definitely feel older, now. I'm in love with someone back home. I think my doings and my thinkings are more measured, more weighted, like literally heavier things that I heft like boulders, swinging them around, thoughts and actions with power to crush people.

I feel emptier. It takes me longer to work up a head of steam and get excited about things. It takes me longer to recover from feeling emotionally spent. When I feel joy, it feels more deeply rooted, more true, not the brash ephemeral thing it was 7 years ago.

A new world doesn't sparkle like it did; it's not new anymore.

Clearly, I also have less to say, or maybe more to say, in fewer words, over time.

Traveling through Luzon, I habitually see spreads of rice drying on pavement. I see shoots of rice ripening in the fields. Farmers picking weeds from the rice paddies in the blazing sun, or raking the spread grains, covered in rags from head to toe to shade themselves, even in spite of the tremendous heat. Every grain of rice involves so much effort, it's amazing to me that it's evolved into the staple food source that it is for so many.

I'm past the shock of insights like this (not that it's a particularly extraordinary or original insight, to begin with). I sit with it more, I soak in it, and it dries out of me, like I'm a grain of rice on the pavement.

more soon,

paulmonster-the just

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